Midwinter/Chapter 4

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Next morning Alastair rode west, and for the better part of a fortnight was beyond Severn. He met Sir Watkin at Wynnstay and Mr. Savage in Lanthony vale, and then penetrated to the Pembroke coast where he conferred with fisherfolk and shy cloaked men who gave appointments by the tide at nightfall. His task was no longer diplomacy, but the ordinary intelligence service of war, and he was the happier inasmuch as he the better understood it. If fortune favoured elsewhere, he had made plans for a French landing in a friendly country-side to kindle the West and take in flank the defences of London. Now, that errand done, his duty was with all speed to get him back to the North.

On a sharp noon in the first week of November he recrossed Severn and came into Worcestershire, having slept at Ludlow the night before. His plan was to return as he had come, by the midlands and Northumberland, for he knew the road and which inns were safe to lie at. Of the doings of his Prince he had heard nothing, and he fretted every hour at the lack of news. As a trained soldier with some experience of war, he distrusted profoundly the military wisdom of Charles's advisers, and feared daily to hear of some blunder which would cancel all that had already been won.

He rode hard, hoping to sleep in Staffordshire and next day join the road which he had travelled south three weeks before. An unobtrusive passenger known to none, knowing none, he took little pains to scan the visages of those he met. It was therefore with some surprise that, as he sat in the tap-room of an ale-house at Chifney, he saw a face which woke some recollection.

It was that of a tall, thin and very swarthy man who was engaged in grating a nutmeg into a pot of mulled ale. His clothes had the shabby finery of a broken-down gentleman, but the air of a minor stage-player which they suggested was sharply contradicted by his face. That was grave, strong almost to hardness, and with eyes that would have dictated if they had not brooded. He gave Alastair good-day as he entered, and then continued his occupation in such a way that the light from the window fell very clearly upon his features. The purpose, which involved a change of position, was so evident that Alastair's attention was engaged, and he regarded him over the edge of his tankard.

The memory was baffling. France, London, Rome—he fitted nowhere. It seemed a far-back recollection, and not a coincidence of his present journey. Then the man raised his head, and his sad eyes looked for a moment at the window. The gesture Alastair had seen before—very long before—in Morvern. Into the picture swam other details: a ketch anchored, a sea-loch, a seafarer who sang so that the heart broke, a cluster of boys huddled on hot sand listening to a stranger's tales.

"The Spainneach!" he exclaimed.

The man looked up with a smile on his dark face and spoke in Gaelic. "Welcome, heart's darling," he said—the endearment used long ago to the child who swam out to the foreign ship for a prize of raisins. "I have followed you for three days, and this morning was told of your inquiries, divined your route, and took a short cut to meet you here."

The picture had filled out. Alastair remembered the swarthy foreigner who came yearly at the tail of the harvest to enlist young men for the armies of Spain or France or the Emperor—who did not brag or bribe or unduly gild the prospect, but who, less by his tongue than by his eyes, drew the Morvern youth to wars from which few returned. An honest man, his father had named this Spainneach, but as secret in his ways as the woodcock blown shoreward by the October gales.

"You have a message for me?" he asked, thinking of Cornbury.

"A message—but from a quarter no weightier than my own head. You have been over long in the South, Sir Sandy." The name had been the title given by his boyish comrades to their leader, and its use by this grave man brought to the chance meeting something of the intimacy of home.

"That's my own notion," he replied. "But I am now by way of curing the fault."

"Then ride fast, and ride by the shortest road. There's sore need of you up beyond."

"You have news," Alastair cried eagerly. "Has his Highness marched yet?"

"This very day he has passed the Border."

"How—by what route—in what strength?"

"No great increase. He looks for that on the road."

"Then he goes by Carlisle?"

The Spaniard nodded. "And Wade lies at Newcastle," he said.

Alastair brought down his fist on the board so hard that the ale lipped from the other's tankard.

"The Devil take such blundering! Now he has the enemy on his unprotected flank, when he might have destroyed him and won that victory on English soil which is the key to all things. Wade is old and doited, but he will soon have Cumberland behind him. Who counselled this foolishness? Not his Highness, I'll warrant."

The Spaniard shrugged his shoulders. "No. His Highness would have made a bee-line for Newcastle. But his captains put their faith in Lancashire, and would have the honest men of North England in their ranks before they risked a battle. They picture them as waiting, each with a thousand armed followers, till the first tartans are south of Shap, and then rushing to the standard."

Alastair, his brows dark with irritation, strode up and down the floor.

"The fools have it the wrong way round. England will not rise to fight a battle, but only when a battle has been won. Wade at Newcastle was a sovran chance—and we have missed it. Blind! Blind! You are right, my friend. Not a second must I lose in pushing north to join my Prince. There are no trained soldiers with him save Lord George, and he had no more than a boyish year in the Royals. … You say he travels by Shap?"

The Spaniard nodded. "And your course, Sir Sandy, must be through West England. Ride for Preston, which all Scots invasions must pass. Whitchurch—Tarporley—Warrington are your stages. See, I will make you a plan."

On the dust of a barrel he traced the route, while Alastair did up the straps of his coat and drew on his riding gloves. His horse was brought, the lawing paid, and as the young man mounted the other stood by his stirrup.

"Where do you go?" Alastair asked.

"Northward, like swallows in spring. But not yet awhile. I have still errands in these parts."

An ostler inspected the horse's shoes, and Alastair sat whistling impatiently through his teeth. The tune which came to him was Midwinter's catch of "The Naked Men." The Spaniard started at the sound, and long after Alastair had moved off stood staring after him down the road. Then he turned to the house, his own lips shaping the same air, and cast a glance at the signboard. It showed a red dragon marvellously rampant on a field of green, and beneath was painted a rude device of an open eye.

The chill misty noontide changed presently to a chillier drizzle, and then to a persistent downfall. Alastair's eagerness was perforce checked by the weather, for he had much ado to grope his way in the maze of grassy lanes and woodland paths. Scarcely a soul was about—only a dripping labourer at a gate, and a cadger with pack-horses struggling towards the next change-house. He felt the solitude and languor of the rainy world, and at the same time his bones were on fire to make better speed, for suddenly the space between him and the North seemed to have lengthened intolerably. The flat meadows were hideously foreign; he longed for a sight of hill or heath to tell him that he was nearing the North and the army of his Prince. He cursed the errand that had brought him to this friendless land, far from his proper trade of war.

The November dusk fell soon, and wet greyness gave place to wet mirk. There was no moon, and to continue was to risk a lost road and a foundered horse. So, curbing his impatience, he resolved to lie the night at the first hostelry, and be on the move next day before the dawn.

The mist thickened, and it seemed an interminable time before he found a halting-place. The patch of road appeared to be uninhabited, without the shabbiest beerhouse to cheer it. Alastair's patience was wearing very thin, and his appetite had waxed to hunger, before the sound of hooves and the speech of men told him that he was not left solitary on the globe. A tiny twinkle of light shone ahead, rayed by the falling rain, and, shrouded and deadened by the fog, came human voices.

He appeared to be at a cross-roads, where the lane he had been following intersected a more considerable highway, for he blundered against a tall signpost. Then, steering for the light, he all but collided with a traveller on horseback, who was engaged in talk with someone on foot. The horseman was on the point of starting, and the light, which was a lantern in the hand of a man on foot, gave Alastair a faint hurried impression of a tall young man muffled in a fawn-coloured riding-coat, with a sharp nose and a harsh drawling voice. The colloquy was interrupted by his advent, the horseman moved into the rain, and the man with the lantern swung it up in some confusion. Alastair saw what he took for an ostler—a short fellow with a comically ugly face and teeth that projected like the eaves of a house.

"Is this an inn, friend?" he asked.

The voice which replied was familiar.

"It's a kind of a public, but the yill's sma' and wersh, and there's mair mice than aits in the mangers. Still and on, it's better than outbye this nicht. Is your honour to lie here?"

The man took two steps back and pushed open the inn door, so that a flood of light emerged, and made a half-moon on the cobbles. Now Alastair recognised the lantern-bearer.

"You are Mr. Kyd's servant?" he said.

"E'en so. And my maister's in bye, waitin' on his supper. He'll be blithe to see ye, sir. See and I'll tak your horse and bed him weel. Awa in wi' ye and get warm, and I'll bring your mails."

Alastair pushed open the first door he saw and found a room smoky with a new-lit fire, and by a table, which had been spread with the rudiments of a meal, the massive figure of Mr. Nicholas Kyd.

Mr. Kyd's first look was one of suspicion and his second of resentment; then, as the sun clears away storm clouds, benevolence and good fellowship beamed from his face.

"God, but I'm in luck the day. Here's an old friend arrived in time to share my supper. Come in by the fire, sir, and no a word till you're warmed and fed. You behold me labouring to make up for the defeeciencies of this hostler wife with some contrivances of my own. An old campaigner like Nicol Kyd doesna travel the roads without sundry small delicacies in his saddle-bags, for in some of these English hedge-inns a merciful man wouldna kennel his dog."

He was enjoying himself hugely. A gallon measure full of ale was before him, and this he was assiduously doctoring with various packets taken from a travelling-case that stood on a chair. "Small and sour," he muttered as he tasted it with a ladle. "But here's a pinch of soda to correct its acidity, and a nieve-full of powdered ginger-root to prevent colic. Drunk hot with a toast and that yill will no ken itself."

He poured the stuff into a mulling pot, and turned his attention to the edibles. "Here's a wersh cheese," he cried, "but a spice of anchovy will give it kitchen. I never travel without these tasty wee fishes, Captain Maclean. I've set the wife to make kail, for she had no meat in the house but a shank-end of beef. But I've the better part of a ham here, and a string of pig's sausages, which I take it is the English equivalent of a haggis. Faith, you and me will no fare that ill. Sit you down, sir, if your legs are dry, for I hear the kail coming. There's no wine in the place, but I'll contrive a brew of punch to make up for it."

The hostess, her round face afire from her labours in the kitchen, flung open the door, and a slatternly wench brought in a steaming tureen of broth. More candles were lit, logs were laid on the fire, and the mean room took on an air of rough comfort. After the sombre afternoon Alastair surrendered himself gladly to his good fortune, and filled a tankard of the doctored ale, which he found very palatable. The soup warmed his blood and, having eaten nothing since morning, he showed himself a good trencherman. Mr. Kyd in the intervals of satisfying his own appetite beamed upon his companion, hospitably happy at being able to provide such entertainment.

"It's a thing I love," he said, "to pass a night in an inn with a friend and a bottle. Coming out of the darkness to a warm fire and a good meal fair ravishes my heart, and the more if it's unexpected. That's your case at this moment, Captain Maclean, and you may thank the Almighty that you're not supping off fat bacon and stinking beer. A lucky meeting for you. Now I wonder at what hostel Menelaus and Alcinous could have foregathered. Maybe, the pair of them went to visit Ulysses in Ithaca and shoot his paitricks. But it's no likely."

"How did Menelaus prosper at Badminton?" Alastair asked.

"Wheesht, man! We'll get in the condiments for the punch and steek the door before we talk."

The landlady brought coarse sugar in a canister and half a dozen lemons, and placed a bubbling kettle on the hob. Mr. Kyd carefully closed the door behind her and turned the key. With immense care and a gusto which now and then revealed itself in a verse of song, he poured the sugar into a great blue bowl, squeezed the lemons over it with his strong fingers, and added boiling water, with the quantities of each most nicely calculated. Then from a silver-mounted case-bottle he poured the approved modicum of whisky ("the real thing, Captain Maclean, that you'll no find south of the Highland line") and sniffed affectionately at the fragrant steam. He tasted the brew, gave it his benediction, and filled Alastair's rummer. Then he lit one of the church-wardens which the landlady had supplied, stretched his legs to the blaze, and heaved a prodigious sigh.

"If I shut my eyes I could believe I was at Greyhouses. That's my but-and-ben in the Lammermuirs, sir. It's a queer thing, but I can never stir from home without the sorest kind of homesickness. I was never meant for this gangrel job. … But if I open that window it will no be a burn in the howe and the peesweeps that I'll hear, but just the weariful soughing of English trees. … There's a lot of the bairn in me, Captain Maclean."

The pleasant apathy induced by food and warmth was passing from Alastair's mind, and he felt anew the restlessness which the Spaniard's news had kindled. He was not in a mood for Mr. Kyd's sentiment.

"You will soon enough be in the North, I take it," he said.

"Not till the New Year, for my sins. I'm the Duke's doer, and I must be back at Amesbury to see to the plantings."

"And the mission of Menelaus?"

"Over for a time. My report went north a week syne by a sure hand."


Mr. Kyd pursed his lips. "So-so." He looked sharply towards door and window. "Beaufort is with us—on conditions. And you?"

"I am inclined to be cheerful. We shall not lack the English grandees, provided we in the North play the game right."

"Ay. That's gospel. You mean a victory in England."

Alastair nodded. "Therefore Alcinous has done with Phaeacia and returns to the Prince as fast as horse will carry him. But what does Menelaus in these parts? You are far away from Badminton and farther from Amesbury."

"I had a kind of bye-errand up this way. Now I'm on my road south again."

"Has the Cause friends hereabouts? I saw a horseman at the door in talk with your servant."

Mr. Kyd looked up quickly. "I heard tell of none. What was he like?"

"I saw only a face in the mist—a high collar and a very sharp nose."

The other shook his head. "It beats me, unless it was some forwandered traveller that speired the road from Edom. I've seen no kenned face for a week, except"—and he broke into a loud guffaw—"except yon daft dominie we met at Cornbury—the man that wanted us all to mount and chase a runaway lassie. I passed him on the road yestereen mounted like a cadger and groaning like an auld wife."

Mr. Kyd's scornful reference to the tutor of Chastlecote slightly weakened in Alastair the friendliness which his geniality had inspired.

"It will be well for us if we are as eager in our duties as that poor creature," he said dryly. "I must be off early to-morrow and not spare horseflesh till I see the Standard."

"Ay, you maun lose no time. See, and I'll make you a list of post-houses, where you can command decent cattle. It is the fruit of an uncommon ripe experience. Keep well to the east, for there's poor roads and worse beasts this side of the Peak."

"That was the road I came, but now I must take a different airt. I had news to-day—disquieting news. The Prince is over the Border."

Mr. Kyd was on his feet, his chair scraping hard on the stone floor, and the glasses rattling on the shaken table.

"I've heard nothing of it. Man, what kind of news reaches you and not me?"

"It is true all the same. I had it from one who came long ago to Morvern and knows my clan. This day His Highness crossed Liddel."

"Liddel!" Mr. Kyd almost screamed. "Then he goes by Carlisle. But Wade's at Newcastle."

"That is precisely the damnable folly of it. He is forgoing his chance of an immediate victory over a dotard—and a victory in England. God, sir, His Highness has been ill advised. You see now why I ride north hell-for-leather. I am a soldier of some experience and few of the Prince's advisers have seen a campaign. My presence may prevent a more fatal error."

Mr. Kyd's face was a strange study. Officially it was drawn into lines of tragic melancholy, but there seemed to be satisfaction, even jubilation, behind the despair, and the voice could not escape a tremor of pleased excitement. Alastair, whose life at the French court had made him quick to judge the nuances of feeling, noted this apparent contradiction, and set it down to the eagerness of loyalty which hears at last that the Rubicon is crossed.

"They will march through Lancashire," said Mr. Kyd, "and look to recruit the gentry. If so, they're a sturdier breed up yonder than on the Welsh Marches——" He hesitated. "I wonder if you're right in posting off to the North? Does this news not make a differ? What about Cornbury and Sir Watkin? Will the casting of the die not make up their minds for them? Faith, I think I'll take another look in at Badminton."

Alastair saw in the other's face only an earnest friendliness.

"No, no," he cried. "Nothing avails but the English victory. We must make certain of that. But do you, Mr. Kyd, press the grandees of the Marches, while I prevent fools and schoolboys from over-riding the natural good sense of our Prince."

Mr. Kyd had recovered his composure, and insisted on filling the rummer again for a toast to fortune. The lines about his eyes were grave, but jollity lurked in the corners of his mouth.

"Then you'll take the west side of England and make for Warrington? Ay, that's your quickest road. I'll draw you an itinerarium, for I whiles travel that gait." He scribbled a list on a leaf from a pocket-book and flung it to Alastair. "The morn's night you lie at Flambury, and the third night you'll be in Chester."

"Flambury," Alastair exclaimed. "That takes me too far eastward."

"No, no. In this country the straight road's apt to be the long road. There's good going to Flambury, and the turnpike on to Whitchurch. You'll lie there at the Dog and Gun, and if you speak my name to the landlord you'll get the best in his house. … Man, I envy you, for you'll be among our own folk in a week. My heart goes with you, and here's to a quick journey."

Alastair was staring into the fire, and turned more suddenly than the other anticipated. Mr. Kyd's face was in an instant all rosy goodwill, but for just that one second he was taken by surprise, and something furtive and haggard looked from his eyes. This something Alastair caught, and, as he snuggled between the inn blankets, the memory of it faintly clouded his thoughts, like a breath on a mirror.